The shops are still open today but it looks like it’s finally curtains for Woolworth’s. From its origins in New York from 1878, F.W. Woolworth has been a fixture of the British high street for longer than most of our grandparents can remember. It is a genuine institution, a retail mainstay, as much a part of the fabric of British society as Coronation Street, red telephone boxes and cricket. But that could all be going down the pan as yesterday the company went into administration, with 815 branches still open, a gigantic £385m debt hanging over their heads and 30,000 staff who aren’t feeling too optimistic about their prospects.
The old tag-line, ‘that’s the Wonder of Woolies’, still nestles snugly in the recesses of my memory. It doesn’t mean that my shopping experiences were wonderful, it’s just that Woolies was always there and my childhood, teenage and 20s are full of Woolies-related memories. I bought my first record in Woolworth’s in Saltcoats in 1978 – it was ‘Wuthering Heights’ by Kate Bush, and it’s still one of my favourite songs. Also in that branch in 1985, I hid the 12″ of ‘Never Understand’ by the Jesus and Mary Chain in the easy listening section because I couldn’t afford it at the time; however, I was spotted by the world’s crappest store detective, who promptly put it back – sadly, it wasn’t there the following Saturday when I actually had the necessaries. When I was in a particularly dreadful bedroom band in the mid-1980s, I borrowed an atrocious Winfield (Woolworth’s brand name) organ for a recording session – it sounded like a mouth organ filled with fluttering moths being blown by a hairdryer. I also wrote the “seminal” song ‘Werewolf In Woolworth’s’ about my (allegedly) lycanthropic Classics teacher, who then turned out not to be a werewolf after all.
My last (and probably last ever) experience of Woolies came when I lived in Chiswick, west London, during the 1990s. Not only did I have a severe crush on one of the managers there, I used to regularly buy their marked down, ex-chart singles. The classics I bought: ‘How Do You Do’ by Roxette, ‘Humpin’ Around’ by Bobby Brown and ‘Suicide Blonde’ by INXS. The things you buy when you think you’re getting a bargain.
I’ll keep my fingers crossed someone comes up with a rescue package – but, sadly, even if they do, the likelihood of the 1970s‘ off-shoot chain, Woolco, reopening are remarkably slim.